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Traveling Miles above Blue Domains for Inspiration
My Favorite 10 Favorite Recordings of 1999

by Chuck Obuchowski

    Jazz musician of the century? Best jazz recordings of the past 100 years? Forget it...I have enough trouble deciding what I’m going to play during my weekly radio show, let alone trying to make such weighty assessments regarding this multifarious art form! And yet, the annual ritual of compiling a list of my favorite releases continues to hold special appeal for me. Perhaps it’s because this presents the opportunity to revisit lots of wonderful music; perhaps it’s the fact that the listening process always restores my faith in the awesome creative powers of sonic improvisation.
    Whatever the reasons, I find myself marveling again and again at the ability of contemporary artists to extend the vocabulary and techniques of past masters. Many of my current favorites include loving tributes to the music of deceased jazz giants like Ellington, Miles, Monk and Mingus. The individuals performing these homage’s, however, are sculpting something very new out of the raw materials they’ve mined. For instance, Cassandra Wilson’s affection for the music of a certain Mr. Davis is apparent all through Traveling Miles, but the results are pure Cassandra; her "Run the VooDoo Down" is clearly of 1999 vintage—no one could possibly mistake it for the 1969 original. The latest batch of young lions should take a lesson or two from this approach. Why, even ol’ Wynton "keeper of the tradition torch" Marsalis seems to have finally gotten the message, as evidenced on his "swingin’ into the 21st" torrent of releases, as if anyone has the time or energy to keep up with his prolific output.
    The following list represents the jazz recordings which most impressed me during the past 12 months. I do not claim they are "the best" of the year, but I humbly implore open-minded listeners to tune in WWUH on January 10, from 9 a.m.-noon, for a backward glance at Out Here & Beyond’s 1999 favorites. The releases are arranged in alphabetical order, not according to their perceived merits.

Chick Corea & Origin: Change Stretch Records
    Greater Hartford jazz listeners have been following this group closely since its inception, due to the inclusion of Hartt School instructor Steve Davis. The trombone meister is given ample space to shine here, but the ensemble interaction Corea coaxes forth from his sextet is what makes Change such a powerful album. It certainly helps to have onboard two fine multi-instrumentalists, Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard, who color the proceedings with a multitude of reed and flute pairings. Add to this mix Corea’s distinctive writing and piano work, and Change is likely to become a constant on your disc player.

James Emery Septet: Spectral Domains ENJA Records
    Acoustic guitarist Emery, founding member of the groundbreaking String Trio of New York, has always been too restless a performer and composer to confine himself to any one ensemble or musical genre. Therefore, he has often collaborated with other barrier-breaking musicians, such as Henry Threadgill and Steve Reich.
    While he has made numerous recordings in the past under his own name, Emery’s latest strikes this listener as his most satisfying work to date. Having augmented the quartet from his first ENJA release (reedman Marty Ehrlich, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Gerry Hemingway) with three more forward-thinking improvisers (violinist Mark Feldman, sax & clarinet player Chris Speed, percussionist Kevin Norton), the leader is able to explore a wider range of textures and styles than ever before. From cutting-edge freeplay to astonishingly unique arrangements of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus compositions, Emery-and-company provide a thrilling glimpse into musical possibilities for the new century.

Erick Friedlander: Topaz SIAM Records
    No question about it, Mr. Friedlander ranks among the top improvising cellists on the current jazz scene. Topaz also demonstrates his impressive skills as a composer and bandleader. Working with a quartet that includes the adventurous alto sax stylist Andy Laster, as well as brothers Stomu and Satoshi Takeishi, on electric bass and percussion, respectively, the cellist offers up a delightfully quirky 10-pack of tunes, including some unlikely covers of Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy material. The instrumentation may be unusual, but the foursome is completely in synch aesthetically. As a result, their music sounds fresh, yet approachable. It’s not at all pretentious, nor does it ever descend into schmaltziness, a fate which seems to befall many a string-oriented jazz project.
(A complete review of Topaz appears in the May/June 1999 WWUH program guide.)

Branford Marsalis Quartet: Requiem Columbia Records
    This album is presumably called Requiem because pianist Kenny Kirkland died shortly after the initial recording sessions. In fact, according to Branford, most of the tunes are first takes, and the band returned to the studios after Kirkland’s passing "to finish, but realized we had to leave it the way it was."
    A wise choice...the fact is, these eight pieces bristle with the incomparable energy exuded by improvisers who are absolutely dedicated to their art--requiring instrumental virtuosity, careful listening, emotional involvement and trust in the Muse. Whether the band is laying down the New Orleans groove of "16th" St. Baptist Church," or whispering the stark beauty of "A Thousand Autumns," the players mesmerize us with their heartfelt story-songs. And Branford, in the wake of his puzzling "Tonight Show" stint, has never sounded better.

Myra Melford (& The Same River, Twice): Above Blue Arabesque Recordings
Above Blue Casserole
Ingredients: Myra Melford (piano, compositions) / Dave Douglas (trumpet) / Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet) / Erik Friedlander (cello) / Michael Sarin (drums)

    Take one part Cecil Taylor (c.1966); apply liberal dose of the blues, Balkan folk music, contemporary European classical music; sprinkle lightly with Don Pullen and Marilyn Crispell. Optional: Add a pinch or two of any Sousa march. Blend thoroughly in CD player, adjusting volume accordingly.
    Gradually bring to boil, then turn down heat. Allow to simmer approx. 12 minutes with "Here Is Only Moment" and "Be Melting Snow." Return to boil, "Through Storm’s Embrace," stirring randomly and often. Do not overheat!
    Allow to cool 6 minutes, "Still in After’s Shadow." Garnish with "A White Flower," if desired.

Baking time: 66 minutes, 10 seconds. Serves eight titles.

Mingus Big Band: Blues & Politics Dreyfus Music
    Don’t dare call this a ghost band, even if Blues & Politics opens with the unmistakable voice of Charles Mingus intoning "It Was a Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama," while his bass echoes the cry for civil rights. Yes, it’s true that Sue Mingus, Charles’ widow, remains the driving force behind the MBB, and that his son Eric, clearly inspired by Charles’ flare for the dramatic, narrates a couple pieces with the group here.
    But even a cursory listen will reveal that this ensemble is able to incorporate new ideas into the already-huge Mingus legacy. Thanks to the outstanding arranging talents of Sy Johnson and Mike Mossman, and to the instrumental firepower of players like John Stubblefield, Bobby Watson and Randy Brecker, the MBB is a living, breathing entity, not a bunch of has-beens and yet-to-be-s, sight-reading tattered charts of yester-year. Blues & Politics ups the temperature even more by bringing to the forefront the incendiary socio-political themes so important to much of Mingus’ music...and bringing it all back home with the gutbucket swagger of 12-bar progressions.

Hugh Ragin: An Afternoon in Harlem Justin Time Records

    For two decades, Hugh Ragin made his mark as a sideman in the envelope-pushing bands of Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, among others. With An Afternoon in Harlem, the trumpeter blasts into the limelight with seven remarkable originals, accompanied by the power trio of Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid and Bruce Cox. Veteran free-thinkers Andrew Cyrille (drums) and David Murray (bass clarinet) each make guest appearances; Murray is at his blazing-hot best on "When Sun Ra Gets Blue," a nineteen minute tour-de-force inspired by Ragin’s two-night gig with the Saturnian’s Arkestra on Labor Day weekend 1987. This work also features a breathtaking performance by poet Amiri Baraka, who reads, chants and shouts his "Message from Sun Ra," coaxing his colleagues into some of the most intense free improvisation I’ve heard on disc in recent years.
    By contrast, the title track is a sunny straightahead swing number. Elsewhere, Ragin’s suitelike pieces combine freedom and structure, melodious balladry and driving postbop. This just may be the sleeper of the year, well worth hunting for...or seeking out at www.Justin.time.com..

Rhythm & Brass: More Money Jingle...Ellington Explorations Koch Jazz

    Who would have guessed that, in a year filled with umpteen recorded Duke Ellington centennial homage’s, one of the most enjoyable of the bunch would come from an offshoot of the Dallas Brass, performed by players barely known in jazz circles, and featuring very little piano work?
    Well, here it is, in all its twisted glory! I suspect the Maestro would have enjoyed the way these gentlemen have permutated this baker’s dozen of mostly-obscure "Dukompositions," injecting some with contemporary beats, others with spoken narrative from his autobiography, still others with a clever mix of old and new stylistic turns. Beyond category, you might say. (A complete review of More Money Jungle appears in the July/August 1999 WWUH program guide.)

Sam Rivers’ Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: Inspiration RCA Victor

    It’s been noted that this album is Rivers’ first for a major label in 25 years...and apparently, without the support of producer/saxophonist Steve Coleman, it wouldn’t have even made it to the RCA drawing board. So hats off to Steve for his kind deed (and inspired improvising)! More importantly, let us celebrate this brilliant player/theoretician, all-but-forgotten by most jazz fans, but every bit as active and important to the music at 69 as he was in his Blue Note heyday 35 years ago. Not a lot of folks recall his stints with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie; obviously, he is highly regarded by his fellow musicians, if not by the general public.
    The cast assembled for this project is actually worthy of the "all-star" adjective: Chico Freeman, Hamiet Bluiett, Ray Anderson and Bob Stewart are but a few of the contributors worthy of mention. The seven pieces on this 70-minute program are all Rivers originals, and represent some of the best-known work from his lengthy, many-faceted career—from "Beatrice," a gorgeous paean for his wife, to "Whirlwind," the ferocious big-band approximation of a raging storm.

Cassandra Wilson: Traveling Miles Blue Note

    Wilson has been testing the limits of the music called "jazz" for the better part of a decade, yet just when you start questioning how far she can safely stray ("Last Train to Clarksville"? Hmmm...), she comes up with something amazing, something like Traveling Miles, which is so rooted in the jazz tradition, and yet which still defies pigeonholing.
    If you doubt her jazz credentials, however, spin "Seven Steps," her vocal reworking of the familiar Victor Feldman/Miles Davis piece. Catch the irresistible swing of Regina Carter’s violin, in tandem with young vibesman Stefon Harris (both of whom issued strong recordings themselves last year), and hear how effortlessly Wilson conveys her message. Equally compelling is her rendering of "Blue in Green," here called "Sky and Sea." Pat Metheny’s classical guitar and Dave Holland’s bass add just the right touch behind Wilson’s wistful wordplay.
    Purists will balk at folksy, pop-oriented fare like "Right Here, Right Now" and "When the Sun Goes Down," neither of which demonstrates the slightest connection to Miles. For that matter, this unusual tribute album includes only a snippet of trumpet (cornet, actually); even so, the clever songstress manages to successfully honor a legendary hornman, while retaining her own distinct musical personality.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2000

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